It took eight months for María and her family to reach New York after leaving their home in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, a gruelling voyage during which several of her fellow travellers died.
“It was dangerous, very dangerous,” says the 33-year-old mother of four, standing outside her temporary home at midtown Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hotel, the city’s main intake facility for new arrivals. “But the truth is we had to leave.”
It is a common refrain among the thousands of people arriving daily at America’s southern border, fleeing persecution or simply searching for a better life in a country whose identity has long been entwined with migration. But the unprecedented volume of people crossing into the US today has created national political upheaval with far-reaching ramifications.
In the 12 months to the end of September, US authorities reported a record 2.5mn “encounters” at the Mexican border. That figure — up from 2.4mn the previous year and 1.7mn in 2021 — includes migrants who approach a port of entry to seek asylum as well as those detained after an unauthorised border crossing.
The surging numbers have spurred a political clash over migration policy in Washington as Republicans accuse President Joe Biden of failing to police the near-2,000 mile frontier. Democrats argue their opponents are weaponising the issue for political gain by stoking fear among voters.
The issue has paralysed Congress. Biden’s efforts to cajole lawmakers into passing a foreign aid package that includes billions of dollars in support for Ukraine and Israel, as well as billions to boost border staffing and resources, are being held up by Republican demands that he restrict asylum and parole policies.
At the heart of the matter are two fundamentally opposing views on immigration and asylum, says Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute and former immigration commissioner.
“Democrats are trying to figure out ways to create legal ways of getting into the country,” says Meissner. “What Republicans are saying is: ‘We don’t want these people getting in.’”
The dramatic uptick in migrants arriving at the US southern border is partly down to political and economic instability across the world; the number of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide grew to 43mn in the middle of 2023 from 30mn in 2019, according to UNHCR data.
That is reflected in the composition of migrants arriving in the US; since 2020, rising numbers have come from places such as India and China, on top of those from neighbouring Central and South America.
But Biden has also moved policy away from the hard anti-immigrant stance of his predecessor Donald Trump, significantly expanded asylum and humanitarian parole policies and allowed hundreds of thousands of migrants to live and work in the US.
This softer approach to the border has provoked a backlash from both the southern states and Republican lawmakers. Biden has signalled a willingness to offer concessions, but risks damaging his own standing among progressive Democrat voters by doing so.
“I would say the perception and reality have merged,” says Charles Foster, a leading immigration lawyer in Houston, who advised former presidents George Bush and Barack Obama on border policy. “It’s gotten to the point that the vast majority of Republicans and a growing percentage of Democrats agree with this concept that the border is wide open now.”
Even in New York, the reception is getting frosty. María and her children sleep less than six miles from Ellis Island, where millions of mostly European migrants entered the US during the early 20th century. But Eric Adams, New York’s Democratic mayor, said in a speech in August that the city has gone “past our breaking point”.
In the Texas border town of Eagle Pass one Saturday in December, volunteers planted 700 crosses on the riverfront in memory of the lives lost crossing into the country in the past year alone. The figure only includes those deaths recorded by US authorities on the American side of the Rio Grande; the real total could be as much as triple that level.
“We know the number is higher,” says Nora Salinas, a forensic co-ordinator at the South Texas Human Rights Center. “So many people call and say ‘we still don’t know where our loved ones are’ after one, three, five years. Until fishermen or ranchers or border patrol call and say they have found someone, they just don’t know where they are.”
The crosses are intended to remind Americans of the cost to human life at the border as hundreds of thousands of people risk their lives to reach the country. But locals in Eagle Pass say there is another tangible cost: the local economy. The influx has upended life in the city of 28,000 people, they say, straining state coffers and redirecting law enforcement.
Trade and travel with Piedras Negras, across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, has been devastated by the crisis as lines back up for hours, they add. One of two bridges that connect the cities has been shut to traffic for weeks. A rail freight bridge in the city — along with another in El Paso — was closed in mid December to free up border patrol officers for redeployment elsewhere.
Eagle Pass has in many ways become the epicentre of the border crisis. “As long as I’ve been alive people have been coming over,” says Jose “Pepe” Aranda, 67, a former Eagle Pass mayor and county judge. “But the numbers that are coming over today — it’s crazy. There is no comparison.”
In response, law enforcement officers have swarmed Eagle Pass, with state troopers from as far afield as Idaho and North Dakota brought in to bolster the number of boots on the ground. Arm patches bearing the orange insignia of Florida Highway Patrol agents — sent to the city by Florida’s governor Ron De Santis — are commonplace. Hotels housing the out of state reinforcements are at capacity.
Other cities and rural communities along the sprawling Mexican border are also struggling to manage the skyrocketing number of migrants crossing in. In Arizona’s Pima county, migrant arrivals have increased from about 18,000 in 2019 to nearly 200,000 this year. Officials have temporarily shut down a port of entry in Lukeville, one of the main arteries crossing from Mexico into Arizona.
Daily transfers of migrants from Border Patrol to local officials have been as high as 1,800, says Mark Evans, communications director for Pima County. “December has been an exhausting month. We have never seen numbers like this.”
The dramatic increase in encounters has not been met with a comparable expansion of permanent Border Patrol personnel. Staffing had stagnated even before the pandemic and the recent wave of migration. Customs and Border Protection says it only has half the resources needed to cover the volume of migrants reaching the border.
Border crossings hit their highest levels in two decades under President Trump, before falling during the coronavirus pandemic. But locals credit the former president with taking a hard-nosed approach that deterred people from making the journey.
“He was tough,” says Alvin Santleban, 75, a retired border patrolman, whose Eagle Pass property peers down over Mexican scrubland. He says the Biden administration needs to force the Mexican authorities to do more to stop the flow of people.
“The prior administration got the message across and it worked,” says Santleban. “There’s some things [Trump] said that bothered us — but as far as running the country or taking care of business, he knew what he was doing.”
Aranda says a shift in tone over immigration under the current administration means “the word is spreading that you can come over . . . the language that comes out of Washington towards immigration makes a big difference”.
State governors from both parties are frustrated and angry. Arizona’s Democratic governor, Katie Hobbs, recently lashed out at “federal inaction” as she ordered 2,500 National Guard troops to the border in response to an “unmitigated humanitarian crisis” that has “put Arizona’s safety and commerce at risk”.
The Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, says Biden’s “deliberate inaction has left Texas to fend for itself” and has led the charge to put migration on to the national political agenda.
The Rio Grande’s passage through Eagle Pass is punctuated by a barricade of buoys and razor wire erected on Abbot’s orders to deter migrants. The Biden administration successfully sued to dismantle it, but the governor has vowed to appeal against the verdict right up to the Supreme Court.
In mid-December, Abbot signed into law new legislation that allows local law enforcement to arrest those who enter the state without legal authorisation, setting up another clash with the federal government over the extent of state powers.
Since early 2022, Abbott has sent more than 80,000 migrants by bus from border areas to cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles as part of “Operation Lonestar”, a crackdown on border crossings.
Since it was introduced, that policy has also helped to increase the number of migrants passing through New York City’s intake system at the Roosevelt Hotel roughly fivefold, to more than 157,600, according to city officials. Currently, there are more than 67,600 migrants staying in government-funded facilities, including shelters, hotels and large-scale relief centres.
The costs of processing and supporting increasing volumes of people is straining municipal resources. To date, New York’s city government has spent more than $2.7bn on the migrant crisis and expects costs to reach $12bn by the end of September 2025 without government support or policy changes.
Alongside his counterparts from fellow Democrat cities Chicago and Denver, New York mayor Adams has urged Biden to declare a state of emergency and set a national resettlement strategy.
On December 27, Adams took steps to slow the pace of arrivals by signing an executive order restricting when buses carrying migrants can enter the city. “We cannot continue to do the federal government’s job,” he said.
The migration issue is gaining salience among Democrat voters. After a 30-year career as a teacher in Houston, Lee Ray Haynes returned to his birthplace in Eagle Pass in 2014. A life-long Democrat, he says the crisis at the border prompted him to switch allegiances to the Republican party.
“It was really once I moved back here and I saw what little is being done with immigration and how it’s affected the society here,” he says, sitting at his kitchen table in downtown Eagle Pass.
Democrats, he says, have failed to outline a coherent plan to address the matter, whereas Republicans “are more vocal about taking action against it to stop it”.
He is not alone. Maverick County, in which Eagle Pass sits, was once solidly blue. But the Republicans fielded candidates for the first time during the last local elections and will do so again next year.
The campaign is already in full swing, with many of the posters that dot the city bearing the green stripe insignia of Border Patrol vehicles in a show of support for law enforcement. “They’re starting to get a red wave going down here,” says Haynes.
Half a mile away at the Maverick County Democratic party headquarters, local party chair Juanita Martinez juggles calls from her roster of candidates as she pushes back on disquiet over Biden’s policies.
“Unfortunately, the Republicans are using it as political propaganda to scare everybody in the US into thinking that there’s chaos on the border, which there isn’t,” she says.
“Obviously, it’s causing an issue here for us local people. But it’s not the chaos that they’re making people think — and it’s for political purposes.”
The shifting political sands in Eagle Pass are a microcosm of a similar shift on a national level, where the Democrats’ policies on migration are increasingly damaging their support.
“It is going to make the difference in next year’s election,” says Aranda, the former mayor and judge. “People might not have been affected before, but now they’re getting affected — because these buses are being sent to New York, to San Francisco, to Chicago.”
Less than a third of voters think the government is doing a good job, according to a June Pew Research Center survey. Biden trailed Trump by 30 points when it came to voter confidence on securing the border in a December poll by the Wall Street Journal.
The president has faced criticism from migration hawks since his first day in office, when he stopped construction of Trump’s border wall with Mexico and reaffirmed protections for so-called dreamer migrants who came to the US as children.
As arrivals have increased, he has sought to strike a balance between placating those who have urged a tougher stance on the border and satisfying pro-immigration progressive voters — some of whom criticise his policies for not deviating enough from Trump’s.
In response to the growing tide of people at the border, the Biden administration has expanded legal migration pathways and ramped up deportations — a potential factor in declining migrant encounters in October, according to US Customs and Border Protection. Biden has also tried, with some success, to incentivise more migrants to enter through ports of entry.
But in December, Biden sent top officials to Mexico to enlist its help reducing migrant numbers, conceded that the system was “broken” and said he was willing to make “significant compromises” on Republican demands over the border.
Analysts say this could include raising the bar on the credible fear standard, used to establish how likely an asylum applicant is to face persecution in their home country, and restricting the president’s parole authority.
Trump, the overwhelming favourite to face Biden again in next year’s election, has vowed to recall troops from overseas to stop what he described as an “invasion” at the southern border and declared that illegal immigration is “poisoning the blood of our nation”. Other Republican presidential hopefuls have also tried to appeal to voters by boasting about the harsh border policies they would implement if elected.
In Eagle Pass, Amerika Garcia-Grewal, a migrant rights campaigner, gestures at the remnants of Abbott’s floating barricade as she laments the uptick in political gamesmanship.
“I feel like the border and immigration are used as political Viagra,” she says. Whenever conservative candidates need to rile up their base, “they come and they talk about the border and they talk about immigration — and their donations go up and their numbers go up.”
Yet for many, immigration remains a fundamental part of American identity. Back in Manhattan, Maria says she is looking forward to the “opportunities” offered by the US, when Terry Quinn and his wife Dolores drop by the Roosevelt to hand over bags of Christmas presents for her family as part of a mentoring programme for recent immigrants run by St Ignatius Loyola church.
Quinn, whose own mother migrated from Cavan in Ireland to New York, says the city has always welcomed migrants and that it is important it continues to do so.
“It’s the best thing we’ve done,” he says.
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